[Cross Posted from Sixteen Small Stones]
I don’t typically read LDS Fiction. A lot of it just doesn’t appeal much to me. Those few books that do draw my attention are often either, in my estimation, much too preachy, superficial, and emotionally manipulative on the one hand or on the other veer off into apostasy in order to be edgy, artistic, intellectual, and morally nuanced. Blech.
However, contrary to my usual interests, last month I picked up a newly released book by David J. West entitled Heroes of the Fallen. I had run across West’s blog a few months earlier, and I had been following his posts. I knew that he was an aspiring LDS author, but I hadn’t followed his blog closely enough to realize that he had a book about to be published. When he announced it’s release, I was intrigued by what I had already gathered from his blog. So I headed over to the local bookstore where he was doing a book signing and purchased an author-signed copy. I finished Heroes of the Fallen in about a week.
The book is set in the ancient America of the Book of Mormon, around 320 or so years A.D. This setting is both a benefit and a challenge for the author. West benefits from a pre-existing setting, complete with unusual names and places, a history, language, political system, and religious beliefs. My favorite fantasy writers, like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Lloyd Alexander, drew upon the histories, myths, and legends of the ancient civilizations with which they were familiar, borrowing names, plots, archetypes, and themes in order to lend weight and coherence to their works. In some ways, Heroes of the Fallen benefits similarly from the Book of Mormon. By adapting and extrapolating from the Book of Mormon, West is able to concentrate on filling in the details and bringing to life a fully-realized, exotic, ancient civilization without having to invent it whole-cloth.
But this benefit is also a liability too. Unlike the Icelandic Volsungasaga, the Norse Eddas, or the Germanic Nibelungenlied from which Tolkien derived some of his work, all of which are completely unfamiliar to most modern readers, as a book of scripture, The Book of Mormon is much more familiar to LDS readers of Heroes of the Fallen, which are its natural audience. I found it difficult to evaluate West’s book on its own merits because in my mind I kept comparing what he was describing to my own understanding and experience with the Book of Mormon.
This comparison problem is complicated by the fact that the book has been billed in some reviews as historical fiction and not fantasy. Tolkien was not trying to retell the Saga of the Volsungs, he was deriving a new faerie story by including elements from the Icelandic saga. West, on the other hand, has clearly done an immense deal of research in order to present a believable setting that is both consistent with the Book of Mormon and ancient America, and the plot is situated firmly in events from the Book of Mormon. So his texts invites a comparison that Tolkien’s does not. I wonder if a non-LDS reader might enjoy the book more because he or she could approach it as a Fantasy novel, enjoying the detail and cohesiveness facilitated by its Book of Mormon origin, without the distraction of comparison. On the other hand, perhaps without the familiarity with the Book of Mormon, a non-LDS reader would find many of the references to earlier events and characters a nonsensical distraction instead of an enhancement. So the Book of Mormon setting is both a boon and a demerit.
Despite West’s expansive research and detail, the ancient America he paints includes a great deal of speculation, exaggeration, and imagination and his novel is better because of it. He doesn’t let what we supposedly know or what we don’t know stand in the way of crafting an interesting story. It is a story of ancient warfare, political and religious intrigue, and courageous but often flawed heroes. The characters often read like super-heroes– seven and eight foot tall warriors, rippling with Arnold-Frieberg-style muscles who can leave fist marks in solid wood beams that they punch in frustration. Some of his main characters are derived not from the Book of Mormon text itself, but from somewhat obscure LDS historical trivia, like Zelph the White Lamanite, and the Prophet-Judge Onandagus. In fact, the only character from the Book of Mormon itself to appear as a substantial main character in Heroes of the Fallen is Mormon himself, and most of the events of the plot are not recounted in the scriptures. This leaves West a lot of room to develop his story and characters independent of specifics from the Book of Mormon by filling in the gaps with his own story. So in addition to Zelph and Onandagus, there are lots of fun references for Mormon doctrine, history, and culture buffs, including Seer Stones, an appearance by one of the Three Nephites, Book of Mormon Archaeology, and testing Evil Spirits.
I dislike writing that tries too hard to be poetic or tries to come across as literary by over-employing descriptive devices. At first I was worried that West’s writing was going to be like that. His prologue was a little that way. Frankly, I think you could probably skip the prologue and then maybe come back to it at the end. But I found that, on the whole, West did an admirable job of using striking and sometimes startling descriptions without distracting me or detracting from the story.
I do have a few complaints about the book, however.
First, I wish the book had indicated that it was only part one of a long story. I started the novel expecting it to reach a central climax where the building political, religious, and personal tensions and subplots come together. But no, this is just part one in which everything is set up. Sure there where sequences of action, but the plot only continues to thicken without ever coming to a conclusion, which I presume will come in the next book, or maybe a third. It would have been better had the book been called Heroes of the Fallen – Book One or something like that. It was kind of like watching The Empire Strikes Back and expecting it to reach some kind of resolution by the end. Better managed expectations would have avoided my disappointment.
My second complaint was not the fault of the author. I attribute it to poor editing. “To nock an arrow” is a nice phrase. “Zelph nocked an arrow” does read well. But when everyone is “nocking” arrows every couple of pages it starts to feel tiresome. How about some variation like “prepared” an arrow, or “placed” an arrow, or “set” an arrow, or “notched” and arrow, or even “readied his bow.” This isn’t a serious error, all writers do it unconsciously, but I think it is something that an editor should have caught. I probably would have noticed less if the first occurrence of “nocked” hadn’t been misspelled “knocked,” which is even more the fault of the editor. But that was the only misspelling I noticed.
My third complaint was that the book was very gory. Perhaps this was unavoidable given both the human sacrificing elements drawn from ancient American archeology and history and the wars of degenerate, secret-society controlled nations drawn from the Book of Mormon. But I did find the increasing amounts of spurting blood off-putting. I have family members who would probably have enjoyed this book, but I have a hard time recommending it to them because I know that they will find the gore disturbing.
My last complaint is that there were a few distracting anachronisms. The phrase “trade their freedom for security” for instance is used a couple of times in the novel. I appreciate how the book tried to explore issues of freedom and security, but I wished that it had avoided this modern, cliché phraseology and found a way to say the same thing in different words that fit better with the ancient setting. Another anachronism that stuck out to me was an apparent “Word of Wisdom” style prohibition on alcohol, coffee drinking, and smoking. I suppose that falls under speculation, but it did stand out to me. Other than that, however, West does a great job of bringing to life a degenerating ancient society without employing modern phrases that might pull us out of the story.
In fact, one thing that I really liked about Heroes of the Fallen, was that the Book of Mormon society that it paints is not very similar to the kind of American democratic, constitutional government society we have today. The Nephite government in Heroes of the Fallen is, in my opinion, a much more accurate depiction than I’ve typically seen. The Judges who reign over the Nephites may be elected to the judgment seat by a democractic voice of the people, but they are much more like the judges of ancient Israel than modern politicians, and even the good ones are more like Warlords than Senators.
Heroes of the Fallen is well done and other than the fact that I was not prepared to wait for the sequel for a resolution, I enjoyed it a great deal. I recommend you purchase a copy from amazon.com and check it out.
Congrats to the author for answering the prophetic call for artists to bring out stories from the Book of Mormon. Even though not dirctly from the text, this novel apparently comes from “between the lines” which any artistic portrayal would have to do anyway to flesh out the story.
Thanks for the review.
Nice review, J. I would read it.
I can second the positive review of this book. I was honored to get an advanced copy for review and I really enjoyed the read.
Jon, thanks for this review. I will probably buy and read this book at some point. I like historical fiction in general, and if you mix it with a BoM setting, well, it sounds worth it.
I have noticed the editing problem in a fair amount of Mormon fiction, btw.
If it is good enough for Jon, it is good enough for me. Thanks for the review, I’ll put this one on my summer reading list.